Some great albums explode like fireworks, engendering a whole constellation of successors and admirers; some shine with a more self-sufficient light, an end in themselves. Jim Ford’s 1969 masterpiece Harlan County is one of the latter, for Ford was an artist whose fortunes never lived up to his talent. A timeless mix of country, funk, and hillbilly music, Harlan County was only esteemed in cult circles and by the more knowing of Ford’s peers. Without imitators, without mainstream attention, Ford’s album has the dubious honor of “best album you’ve never heard,” a title which sums up well its worldly double fate of failure and success.
“Harlan County”, the opening track named for Ford’s childhood home in Kentucky, sounds audacious even now. Twanging guitar, silky horns and honky-tonk piano come together over Ford’s frantic voice as he sings about the hard life in Harlan, where “the cold winds blow and the crops don’t grow” and “a man’s tired of living when he’s twenty”. But in the crowning touch, the chorus, the instruments all drop out and with mock seriousness, backed by singers and an organ performing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, Ford intones, “We are gathered here today to ask the Lord . . .” Then the entire funky ensemble resumes its sublime cacophony and Ford yells, his voice wavering to the brink of tunelessness, “To take us out of Harlan county!”
Yes, Harlan County is outrageous, unusual, deft and brilliant; it’s also pretty damn corny. Considerations of hokeyness go by the wayside, however, because Ford and his band are so convincing. When he and his chorus sing, “I’m gonna make her love me till the cows come home”, you can almost see Ford, scruffy with beard, dressed in a denim jacket and filthy with field work, railing against the closed door of his neighbor farmer’s shack while the coal-laden cartoon winds of Harlan County blow all around him. When the track closes with an almost incredible whoop of countrified ecstacy — “I’m gonna make her love me till the hee haw, yeah!” — it takes a heartless detachment not to grin in sympathy.
Ford released few recordings in his life. He experienced more success as a songwriter, working with and for soul greats such as Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin and the Temptations, but he eventually dropped out of music and virtually disappeared until the late 2000s. A revival of interest in his work lead to talk of a tour, but the resurgence came too late: Ford died in 2007. What makes a sad human interest story, though, makes for a savory musical artifact, because Harlan County, not to mention his unreleased albums, retains the spice of novelty and the thrill of discovery. Ford’s work ranks with the best songwriters of his generation, but his records are untainted by the anachronistic musical fetish so often lavished on his peers. It’s sad for Ford’s memory, but lucky for us: Harlan County remains a solitary delight, away and apart, to itself.